In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses Huck’s keen observations of the world around him to address and attack a variety of societal problems, the most problematic of which is the general state of man within a so-called civilized society. The town of Bricksville, Arkansas and the incident that involves two of its citizens, Boggs and Sherburn, is just one of many examples within the novel that illustrate the power of Huck’s observations and Twain’s response to the poor state of humanity. While the portrayal of Colonel Sherburn is easy to dismiss as just another satire of a Southern gentleman, Sherburn and his speech also serve another purpose, namely to deliver Twain’s visceral attack on the cowardice of man.
The reader is introduced to Bricksville, Arkansas through Huck’s description of the town’s stores and houses. Despite its name, the stores and houses in Bricksville are not made of brick but wood that are “most all old shackly dried-up frame” (Twain 127). The unpainted houses are surrounded by gardens in which the townspeople “raise…jimpson weeds, and sunflowers, and ash-piles, and old curled up boots and shoes, and pieces of bottles, and rags, and played out tin-ware” (Twain 127). These images illustrate the townspeople’s apathy toward their homes and surroundings and leave the reader with the impression that the problem with these individuals is their laziness. Thus, the unpainted homes and yards full of garbage are representative of not only a general state of disrepair of the town of Bricksville but also of the general disrepair of the quality of humanity that lives there.
As Huck travels further into town, he takes note of the hogs and old men loafing around doing nothing, the latter chewing tobacco. The hogs and men are presented with images of mud further reinforcing the portrayal of a backwards society. For example, “you’d see a muddy sow and a litter of pigs come lazing along the street… And she’d stretch out, and shut her eyes… and looked as happy as if she was on salary” (Twain 129). The hogs and their ways are a metaphor for the lazy citizens of Bricksville who do not do an honest day’s work. While at first this metaphor may appear unfair, Huck’s disgust with the town makes more sense when he reveals the sadistic nature of its lazy inhabitants. “There couldn’t anything wake them up all over, and make them happy all over, like a dogfight – unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to this tail and see him run himself to death” (Twain 129). Given the natural antagonism between pigs and dogs, the sentence reinforces the idea that the hogs are a metaphor for the population of Bricksville. However, the sentence also serves to explain Huck’s disdain toward the townspeople who seem to only come out of their slothful state when there is an opportunity for bloodlust directed at someone weaker.
The following paragraph, in which Huck describes the poor state of the houses on the riverfront, fully conceptualizes the town as a whole. The water eats away at the structures until they cave in but remain standing, “such a town as that has to be always moving back, and back, and back, because the river’s always gnawing at it” (Twain 129). Through Huck, Twain shows the reader that there is no hope that anything about the town will ever change except that the conditions of both the town and its inhabitants will continue to get worse and worse. The Boggs-Sherburn scene that comes soon after this argument illustrates this point.
The townspeople get excited at the sight of man Boggs, the town drunk and something of a court Jester, who comes “in from the country” joking that he is on a war path and the price of coffins is about to rise (Twain 130). Boggs makes preposterous threats against Sherburn that no one takes seriously, including Huck. Nevertheless, Sherburn, “the best dressed man in that town” and something of a respectable town elder, is not amused (Twain 130). He makes an unassuming threat of his own. This time the townspeople get concerned and even find Boggs’ daughter to try to calm him down. Unfortunately Boggs doesn’t listen and Sherburn does what he promises.
Despite the tragedy, the townspeople don’t mourn for long. Once Boggs dies and his daughter is pulled away from him, the good people comfort each other by “squirming and scrounging and pushing and shoving to get window and have a look” (Twain 132). They fight for a chance to get a glimpse of the dead body. The injustice that first gets them riled up is not the murder but rather that some people who already looked at the body are not being fair and giving others the opportunity to look, “other folks has their rights as well as you” (Twain 132). Huck slides out of the crowd and observes the rest of the town’s reaction. Besides fighting over who gets to see dead Boggs and for how long, the people of Bricksville also start to reenact the incident for others who missed seeing it happen live. Here Twain reports Huck’s observation with almost stoic realism, “the people that had seen the thing said he’d done it perfect; said it was just exactly the way it all happened” (132).
The townspeople’s progression of reactions to Boggs death is as follows: brief period of mourning, voyeurism and vulture like squabbling over a piece the dead, reenactment of the incident in a celebratory spectacle, and finally a call for a lynching. Given this progression of events, the call for a lynching barely passes for righteous indignation. Instead it appears as just another form of sadistic entertainment, something similar to their other favorite pastime of tormenting dogs.
In order to conduct the lynching, the townspeople gather themselves in an uncontrollable mob, “yelling and raging like Injuns” and scaring the women and children to death (Twain 133). Here Twain relies on stereotypical images of Native Americans to portray the townspeople as a mob at the height of incivility. As a side note, this portrayal is surprisingly insensitive given Twain’s otherwise deep compassion for the struggles of the underdogs in American society.
As if in deliberate contrast to the incivility of the mob, Sherburn is portrayed as poised and calm. He stands still on the roof of his front porch holding a double barrel gun and gives a speech that is “slow and scornful” (Twain 133). While at first reading, the character of Sherburn appears to be another one of Twain’s attacks on the concept of a Southern gentleman, this interpretation of the scene is perhaps too simplistic. Instead I view Sherburn and his speech as Twain’s attack on the good people of Bricksville and a response to Huck’s disgust with their behavior. In other words, Twain uses Huck’s voice to build the reader’s contempt for the town and then uses Sherburn’s voice to provide the reader with his own visceral reaction to the townspeople’s appalling behavior.
Through Sherburn, Twain begins his verbal attack by emasculating the crowd and laughing at the idea that they could “lynch a man”(133-134). Sherburn identifies them as cowards since only cowards “tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women,” some of the weakest members of a society (Twain 134). He further proclaims that in this mob’s cowardly hands a real man is safe, “as long as it’s daytime” and he is facing them straight on (Twain 134). By emphasizing these aspects of the townspeople’s behavior, Twain portrays Sherburn as something other than a coward. While it is difficult to commend Sherburn’s attack on Boggs, it is nevertheless an illustration of a different and less cowardly approach. It is as if Twain is saying that despite the brutality of Sherburn’s own actions against Boggs, he is not a coward or a hypocrite because his attack did not come from the shadows, as a surprise, or from the back.
On the surface Sherburn embodies what appears to be a satire of a Southern gentleman. He is a self-important, well-dressed Colonel who commits murder that is supposedly justifiable. However, Sherburn is more dimensional than a Southern satire because, in his own speech, he lampoons the very idea of a Southerner, “Why don’t your juries hang murderers? Because they’re afraid the man’s friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark – and it’s just what they would do” (Twain 134). Here Twain again calls the average man, the average Southerner, a coward because he forgoes going at it alone and gets his strength instead from darkness and numbers.
Twain’s attack on society does not stop there. Given his title, Sherburn is likely aware of the horrors of war and addresses them by drawing comparisons between the actions of the mob and the actions of the Army. “The pitifulest thing out as a mob; that’s what an army is – a mob” (134). It is as if Twain is saying that the horrors of war are possible because the Army is made up of average cowards whose power stems from numbers. At the end of his speech, Sherburn commands the crowd to disperse and it immediately does. Their dispersal is Twain’s confirmation that Sherburn is right.
Unlike people of Bricksville, Huck does not seem to be a coward. He takes what Sherburn says to heart and, given that he is only a teenager, Twain portrays him to be much more of a real man then the rest of the townspeople put together. Huck watches the scene unfold and, after Sherburn finishes his speech, watches the crowd disperse and break apart, “tearing off every which way” (Twain 134). He observes Buck Harkness, the man Sherburn accuses of being the leader and only half a man, run right along with his fellow cowards, “looking tolerably cheap” (Twain 134). These observations are indicative of the fact that Huck sticks around long enough to make them. Therefore, though he eventually takes off like the rest of them, Huck fights the idea of being part of the mob. Huck insists that he could’ve stayed, “if I’d a wanted to, but I didn’t want to” (Twain 134). This insistence is Twain’s way of portraying Huck as someone who is not only not a coward but also as someone who is sensitive to being accused of being one.
In conclusion, the character of Sherburn is much more complex than he appears on the surface and his purpose in the novel extends past satire. He embodies both civilization and barbarism and serves as a reaction to Huck’s contempt for the people of Bricksville. As a result, Twain uses Sherburn’s speech as a way to identify and address the cowardice that he sees in the average man.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003. Print.